More evidence is urgently needed about the use of alternatives to detention in the Americas. Successful Programs in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago reveal a growing trend.


In the past few decades Latin America has seen unprecedented levels of forced migration.


This year, the IDC produced the report “ What do we hope for the future? Mapping immigration detention and its alternatives in the Americas Region”. The study compares policy and practice related to immigration detention and alternatives to detention in 21 countries in the Americas region.

Image from IDC Report: “What do we expect for the future?”

The IDC defines an alternatives to detention as any law, policy or practice by which persons are not detained for reasons relating to their migration status; they have been shown to be more affordable, effective and humane than immigration detention, which continues to be widely used in the Americas region.


Here, we share some recent developments in the region of alternatives to detention, or initiatives that share elements in common with successful alternatives.




Mexico is a transit country for people migrating to the United States, and has also become an important destination country for many fleeing violence in Central America and elsewhere. In recent years, migration routes through Mexico have become more dangerous due to a rise restrictive policies that put people at greater risk, pushing them into the hands of criminal organizations, human smugglers, and drug traffickers. A network of humanitarian aid organisations have emerged to operate numerous shelters, providing an alternative to immigration detention described as an ‘oasis’ along the dangerous migration routes in Mexico. La 72 is one such shelter operating in the region. La 72 is supported by Doctors without Borders, Asylum Access, the Red Cross, the UNHCR and various Mexican NGOs, and provides legal counsel and representation for those seeking asylum. There are now over 85 organisations like La 72 offering food, shelter, safety, and a ‘humanitarian space’ where migrants can feel dignified and supported. The shelters serve as alterantives to detention, ensuring the right to freedom of movement.


La 72 Shelter in Mexico Source: FMR

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras


The Youth Outreach Centre model operating in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras represents an inspired example of a community-based approach to violence prevention. Young people in the region are increasingly forced to choose between the lack of opportunities and the threat of gang activity in their neighborhood, and being forced to leave their home country to seek safety and a better life. The model is a joint venture by civil society, national governments and the private sector; there are currently over 160 Centres in operation throughout the countries’ highest-risk communities. Young people between the ages of 9 and 29 can attend local Centres and participate in engaging programs like English classes, computer training, life skills support, tutoring sessions, job training and volunteer opportunities. Results of an assessment published in the Forced Migration Review found the program particularly successful at building trust and relationships, which is also a key component of effective alternatives to detention. Programs like the Youth Outreach Centre model that encourage engagement with the community – as opposed to ineffective enforcement policies – can help to inform development and implementation of alternatives to immigration detention, with a focus on support and participation rather than restriction.



An erosion of Venezuela’s socio-political stability coupled with a rise in State repression – and further exacerbated by shortages of food and medicine – has left Venezuelans seeking safety and security in neighbouring countries. Peru’s introduction of a new work and study permit for Venezuelan asylum seekers has been hailed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as ‘an example for the region of how States can protect migrants who are in a vulnerable situation by regularising migration’. The Permiso Temporal de Permanencia (PTP) is a work and study permit provided exclusively to Venezuelan citizens for a period of one year, with the possibility of renewal. Over 10,000 Venezuelans have been approved for the new program, assuring them freedom of movement, personal liberty and self-reliance. While it is important that Peru continue to assess Venezuelan asylum-seeker claims and apply formal protection instruments under the Cartagena Declaration, the PTP represents a successful and positive alternative to detention.


Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago has seen increasing numbers of migrants in the past decade, with the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the Caribbean region rising by 50% between 2015 and 2016. The Island State is both a transit and destination point for migrants, who come from regional and extra-regional countries including Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Colombia and Nigeria. Like many of the small Caribbean nations, Trinidad and Tobago had no legislation covering refugee protection; however, it acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in November 2000, and has developed a refugee policy embracing alternatives to detention. The policy gives refugees the right to work, freedom of movement, medical care, educational opportunities, counselling for trauma, family reunification and protection from refoulement or detention so long as they comply with the country’s laws. While there is some concern that not all of the rights conferred by the nation’s refugee policy are necessarily available to all asylum seekers and migrants (notably the right to work), it is an important commitment to limit use of unnecessary immigration detention and expand alternatives.


The IDC’s research reveals several benefits in restricting the application of detention and prioritising community-based options. Among other advantages, alternatives cost less than detention, respect and fulfill human rights, increase voluntary departure rates and improve integration outcomes for approved cases. Examples of successful alternatives in the Latin American and Caribbean demonstrate that even smaller nations with mixed migratory movements can realise the significant benefits of adopting community and engagement-focused policies that avoid unnecessary, costly detention practices.


This article was authored by Paul Michaels as part of his Communications Internship with IDC